Training: How to Listen

Attorney Heather Reynolds and Licensed Professional Counselor Brooke Atkinson discuss ways to better listen to those we love around sensitive topics. In this informal conversation, they highlight actionable tips to help someone in need feel heard, and empowered as they tell their story.

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HEATHER: Today we are talking about how to listen to one another in a way that is empowering to the person that we’re listening to and doesn’t retraumatize that person in how we listen.  I want to be careful when I’m listening to someone tell me an important story in their life, particularly if it involves trauma.

I want to listen with compassion and I want to listen thoughtfully so that I don’t make the situation worse, but I actually can help with the healing process. So, how do I be a better listener is the question.

Creating a Comforting Environment

BROOKE: So, think about the environment first. What is the environment? Are you distracted?  Is there a lot of clutter in the background that is going to draw your attention as a listener? Is there something else that you’ve got going on in your own head that is going to be distracting for you?

So, your environment has to be a good space for listening, but then also you have to be in a good space for listening.

Then the next thing is you need to be focused on the person. You can’t be thinking about your grocery list or what you’re gonna do tomorrow, or the party that you’re gonna go to tonight or whatever it is that’s on your own mind. Asking them if this is a good time for their conversation. Is there anything that’s distracting for them? If you’re on a Zoom meeting like this, is there anything in their environment that’s distracting for them?  Is it a good time for them? So you wanna take care of all of those environmental things so that the, the space of the conversation itself is ready for that listening.

HEATHER: So, that the environment supports the listening; the ability to be present with that human being. Beautiful.

Staying Present

BROOKE: And then just being present and it’s natural, your mind is gonna wander, so just recognizing when it does and bringing yourself back to the conversation; refocusing on the person. If you need to, writing a note down so that you’re not feeling like you have to remember it.

Like, if they say something that sparks a question for you, instead of asking the question right then, just jotting a little note to remind yourself what that question was so that you can come back to it when they’re done talking. Sometimes that can be helpful, too.

Body Posture + Body Language

And then there’s some things that you can do while you’re listening. So, for example, if I was sitting back in my chair sort of casually with my arms spread open, it doesn’t look like I’m listening. But if I lean forward a little bit, I look a little more interested in what the person is saying. So body posture and body language can be super important too. This kind of thing (leans forward with head in hand), probably not listening. But if I’m sitting up, I’m leaning forward a little bit. I’m looking at the person. All of that can make a difference.

Sometimes people will be a little uncomfortable if you stare at them, though. So, finding a spot kind of around them sometimes can be beneficial.

HEATHER: I hadn’t really thought about body language. Thank you for that.

Responding to the Person + Prompting

BROOKE: Then the responses are important, too. So, when you’re listening to somebody, you want to listen. But people do well when you give them prompts to let them know that you’re listening. Our social graces are such that there’s a constant back and forth flow, so you don’t want to necessarily sit and quietly listen because then the other person might assume that you are often your own little world in your head.

So, head nods. Minimal prompts are things like, ‘mm-hmm, yes, go on,’ those sorts of things. Something else that you can do is just repeat something that they say. Something like, if I were to tell you that, ‘The sky is blue.’ You might just say, ‘blue’ in response or ‘sky’ in response.

Those are minimal prompts where you’re just repeating one thing that you find of interest that you think might keep the conversation going. But, in particular, when listening to something traumatic, we want to show empathy, and empathy is shown by paying attention, not necessarily to what was said, not necessarily to the facts of this story, but to the feeling of the story.

Reflecting Feeling

When you’re listening to a traumatic story, responding with the feeling that you are feeling based on what they are saying. If what they’re telling you sounds like it was difficult or traumatic or sad, whatever feeling that you’re getting, you can say something like that. Just responding with, ‘wow, that must have been so difficult.’

And then just letting them continue. So, that validates possibly what they might have been feeling at the time, it acknowledges your own feeling about their story and gives them the space to continue on.

It’s called Reflecting Feeling. It’s a counseling technique. Listening for the feeling can be very helpful with traumatic experiences. Not asking a lot of questions about the facts; the facts aren’t important. What’s important is how did it make them feel?

Prompting Questions

How did they respond to it? So, you could ask questions like that if you were going to ask questions like, ‘wow, what did you do next?’ So, if you notice even the tone of my voice is a very curious but supportive tone, like being supportive of that, ‘that must have been difficult.’ So, my tone has this, ‘wow. Thank you so much for sharing that. What happened? Or, ‘what happened next?’ Or something like that. Or, ‘that must’ve been so difficult, how did you navigate that?’ Those sorts of things can be pretty impactful for the other person.

Believing the Person

So, just kind of coming from a space of, no matter what they say, that you believe it.

HEATHER: Beautiful. And the purpose of believing another person and telling a traumatic story, even if it sounds like completely unbelievable, the gift of believing them makes a huge difference in their ability to own their story. Is that what the value of believing is?

BROOKE: It’s not just that, but also the validation.

‘You’re not alone.’ When we share our stories, especially traumatic stories, it essentially shares the weight of it. So, when we have a traumatic experience and we hold onto that, we carry the weight of that secret all by ourselves. And sharing that story with another person allows us to have that person carry some of the weight of it.

So regardless of how unbelievable it sounds, it’s important that we acknowledge that person’s perspective. Because it’s possible that they might have gotten some detail wrong or some fact wrong, or that for themselves, they have possibly seen it as something bigger than “in facts” that it was, it doesn’t matter to them.

That is their story. And so we need to acknowledge that and come from that space. We have to meet people where they are, and if where they are is this really big story, then that’s where we need to meet them. So, having somebody listen to your story and just believe you, no matter what it is, it creates a safe space.

Creating a Safe Space

And ultimately that’s what we want to do. We want to create that safe space because trauma breaks two things for us: it breaks our sense of safety, which breaks our ability to connect with one another, and connection is fundamental. It’s a fundamental human need. We all need to connect with someone or something. And so when our sense of safety is broken, we have to find that safety again before we’re able to connect again.

So, honoring that person’s story, believing their story, no matter what they say to you, that creates that safe space, which is the beginning of being able to connect.

HEATHER: Wow, that’s huge. Thank you for that.

Meeting Them Where They Are

What if someone is downplaying their story instead of exaggerating? But downplaying it like, ‘oh, it’s just, you know, he just kind of a, maybe he accidentally, you know, bumped into me and grabbed me’ or whatever.

How do I support someone who may be minimizing what really happened?

BROOKE: You can do a couple of different things. You can just meet them exactly where they are and say, ‘oh, okay, well, I’m glad it wasn’t that big a deal to you.’ And just meet them right where they are, but oftentimes when people are downplaying their story, it’s because somebody has downplayed it for them.

And so they are trying, in their own minds, to minimize it, so that their heart, their feelings will catch up with what everybody’s telling them. And if what everybody’s telling them is, ‘it’s no big deal, he does this all the time, it’s not just you,’ then I might be trying to talk myself into it as I’m telling you my story.

And so I think it’s okay to acknowledge some dichotomy there. So, ‘I hear you saying that it’s no big deal. I’m not sure I would feel the same way. So, I mean, kudos to you for, for being able to make it so small, something that feels so big to me.’ So acknowledging the way it feels to you while still empowering them that if they wanna view that as a small thing, that that’s okay, too.

HEATHER: I really like the allowance that you give to the storyteller wherever they wanna be with it, however they want to hold it, to empower them to hold it how they choose to hold it. And I don’t need to make it bigger and I don’t need to make it smaller.

Counter Transference

Sometimes I fear that some story somebody tells me is going to impact the story of my own life.

And if I haven’t already done my own healing work, it could get triggered in myself and then I’ll just experience kind of a PTSD experience in the middle of trying to listen to another human being. So, as a mental health professional, I’m sure you’ve had lots of years of training to recognize your own story and how it impacts your emotional body and how then you as a listener might get triggered by someone else’s story.

And then how do you distinguish between your emotional reaction to their story versus the one that’s being triggered in you and not project my emotional upset onto this person who has their own story to carry at that moment. And how do I help them carry their story and not get mine interwoven in a way where I can’t even tell who’s who anymore.

BROOKE: Yeah, that’s a big one and it is something that we talk about quite a bit in the counseling profession. What you just described is something we call counter transference.  Transference is where the individual that’s telling their story has some feelings about you as their counselor.

Counter transference is where you as the counselor then feel those feelings too, or you get triggered in some way. And that happens; it’s a pretty advanced counseling skill to use that as part of the counseling itself, but for our purposes here, what I would say is just acknowledge it internally, so it’s okay to recognize that as you’re talking that I’m being triggered right now, but to some degree compartmentalize that.

If you’re taking notes, it might be something where you just jot down a note that you were triggered about this thing, and then like literally on your page, you box it off, like you put it in a box sort of to symbolize to yourself, ‘okay, I’m gonna box this up for now because it’s not appropriate in this room right now we’re focused on the other person.’ But I’m going to come back to it later and it’s important that you do come back to it later because when you’ve been triggered, you do have to do something with that, otherwise, it’ll get bigger and you don’t want it to get bigger.

So, you can do something like that, or you can simply acknowledge to the other person, like, ‘wow, as I’m listening to your story, I’m noticing that, that I’m feeling some of my own stuff come up.’ And then you use that; you don’t need to say anymore than that. You just use it to ask them how they’re doing.

Checking In With Them

Like, ‘I imagine that it must be difficult for you to talk about this. Are you feeling okay right now? Do you need a break?’ So that’s a good time to acknowledge the gravity of what they’re saying because you’re feeling the gravity of it. Those kinds of questions just to check in with them because when you’re feeling it, they probably are too great.

HEATHER: So like, naming it and owning it, if that’s what’s popping up for me. Thank you.

BROOKE: So a lot of listening is just being very present to what’s happening and not just what’s happening in the words, but what’s happening in the body language or the physiological responses, or even your own feelings when you’re having that stuff pop up, recognizing that they may be having something similar go on and just checking in with them. ‘Are you ok? What do you need right now?’

HEATHER: Oh, nice question. And what if they say, ‘I don’t know?’

BROOKE: You let them know that that’s okay; we don’t always know what we need.

Offer Something Soothing: Soft Blanket, Pillow, Water

So you can offer a few things. It depends on whether you’re in the room or whether it’s a zoom or a virtual meeting like this.

If you’re in the room, you can offer something to drink or some tissues if needed. Oftentimes when people are telling traumatic experiences, it’s helpful for them to have a pillow or a blanket or something to hold on to. There’s something soothing about that. That’s often why we have therapy animals in counseling. Having that animal on your lap, the weight and the warmth of it can make a difference. But for somebody in a virtual setting like this, you might offer, ‘do you need to go grab a glass of water or a pillow or a blanket, something to hold onto?’

Don’t Try to Fix It

HEATHER: How does one avoid that desire to avoid suffering and to want to fix it?

BROOKE: That is probably one of the hardest things to learn is not to fix the other person’s problem. When you try and fix the other person’s problem, you give them the message that they can’t do it themselves or that you think they can’t do it themselves. And when we give somebody the message that we think they can’t do it themselves, that we have to solve their problem for them, we disempower them, which is exactly the opposite of what we’re trying to do.

We have to empower them by knowing that they have the solution to their own problem.

On Interrupting

HEATHER: And what about interrupting? You’ve been trained not to interrupt people, but some of us who are just learning how to listen in a way that is honoring, some of us have to be trained not to interrupt.

BROOKE: Not interrupting can be hard at first. It is important to give the other person the space that they need to say what they need to say. There are times when it’s appropriate to interrupt. That is a difficult skill to learn, though, sort of like counter transference is an advanced counseling skill.

Interrupting is an advanced counseling skill. So, for our purposes, I would simply say if you’re feeling like you need to say something, then write it down, make a note so that you can remember to come back to it later.

Survivor Blaming

HEATHER: Sometimes I’ve noticed when I tell my story to someone, they have a tendency to want to ask questions like, ‘well, what were you wearing?’ It feels blaming and why is it that the nicest people want to blame someone else for what happened to them?

And they don’t even know they’re doing it in the conversation just by asking a question, like, ‘what part did you play in this?’ How do you deal with that?

BROOKE: So, a couple of things. I would say that, in general, our society has taught us that we all have some part in it.

So, let’s say we’re talking about a date rape or something. When you look at it, it doesn’t matter what you were wearing; it’s still your body. But our society has taught us that it does matter. There is a dichotomy there. It’s comforting to them to think that if you were wearing something you weren’t supposed to, that, ‘it won’t happen to me because I don’t ever wear that.’

So, that’s when the listener is trying to reduce their own level of discomfort when they ask questions like that. But it is an attempt for them to make themselves feel better based on societal norms. So, what I would say is, A, we shouldn’t ask questions like that. Don’t ask questions about the details.

The details don’t matter. What matters is what parts of the story the person wants to tell. Which is why I say reflect feeling rather than facts. It doesn’t matter what somebody was wearing, what matters is how they felt in that moment. What matters is how they feel about it now.

Survival Mechanism in Our Brains

But what I would say is it’s also important to recognize and acknowledge that we have a survival mechanism in our brain and that survival mechanism is repeating the story.

So even if I have never spoken this story out loud to somebody before, I have played this story over and over in my head a thousand times because that’s what my brain does. It’s what all brains do; it’s part of survival.

Our brains do this in an attempt to find a space where I could have changed the outcome, and a lot of times there is nothing we could have done to change the outcome. But we do go through that process regardless. Just as an example: from 9/11, there was a young child that was receiving counseling because he had seen the buildings on fire and he was going over the story in therapy and ultimately he decided to draw a picture of the twin towers and at the bottom of the towers he put trampolines.

So, that all the people that he saw fall could have just jumped on a trampoline and been okay. And so for him, that was his decision, that’s the way his brain decided that it could have been okay if there had been trampolines.

The point of the story is, ultimately that’s what he needed. He needed to find something that would’ve changed the outcome, and he did. And shortly after that, he was done with therapy because he had found the change that needed to happen. Similar for us, when we have a traumatic experience, we play it over and over again until our brain says, ‘oh, that’s what we could have done differently!’

So that’s part of where that, ‘well, what were you wearing’ comes up because, if I can decide that instead of wearing dresses, I’m now only ever gonna wear pants, then maybe that’s the way my brain decides that I’m now safe in the world and I don’t have to play that story over and over again in my head.

So I think it’s also important to acknowledge that whatever it is that we are deciding, that that’s okay. So, as a woman, if I want to wear pants for the rest of my life, I can do that. And if that’s ultimately what makes me feel safe in the world, ‘okay, what does that matter?’ But if ultimately I decide there isn’t anything that I could have done differently and my brain sort of settles down that, repeating the story over and over again with my deciding that that was the case, then that’s okay, too.

And if that means I can still wear dresses and feel like I’m safe in the world, great. A lot of it is very internal and it’s about the individual person and what it is they need to feel safe. Whether that’s making some kind of life altering decision, like what you’re gonna wear for the rest of your life, or making a drawing with trampolines at the bottom of the building so that people can be safe. Whatever that is, we need to honor for that person.

What if I Disagree with Something They Say

HEATHER: What happens if I’m listening to someone and I disagree with something they’re saying, like they’re blaming themselves for what happened to them, and they say, ‘oh, it’s probably my fault. It was what I was wearing.’

Like, I would never ask that question, but I could hear someone telling me that and then how do I respond to that.

BROOKE: So, that’s a really good question because that does happen sometimes, but here’s the thing: from our perspective, again, we want to honor the person and where they are. So you just acknowledge it like, ‘wow, I hear that you’re wanting to take the blame for this. Is that really where you are?’

Like, ‘are you wanting it to be your fault? Do you believe that it’s your fault? Do you want me to believe that it’s your fault?’ I think it’s okay to ask those questions and just kind of speak it out and that’s where I come back to being very present in that moment. Because sometimes you know ahead of time, based on some of the things that they’ve said before, that they don’t want it to be their fault.

But they’re trying to come to grips with it in that way and sometimes because you’ve listened to the other things that they have said in that moment, you sort of recognize that what they need is, ‘well, I don’t think it was your fault,’ but you don’t ever want to discount what somebody is saying. So if they’re saying that it was their fault, then that’s where they are and you have to meet them there. Right, but it’s okay if you disagree with them.

Like, ‘wow. I mean, I see lots of other things that could have gone wrong. I don’t see that it was all your fault, but I’m willing to accept that if that’s where you need to be.’ So, it’s okay to sort of take some of that and just recognize it. ‘Wow, so it was all your fault?’

Self Blame

HEATHER: Okay. And that’s self blame. Is that part of a typical process that someone might go through after a sexual assault?

BROOKE: Sure. If you look at trauma from a survival mechanism, it makes a lot more sense. And I say that because even that self blame is an attempt to try and find something that we could have done differently. Some way we could control it, some way we could know for certain that it wouldn’t happen again.

If I come to a decision that it was my fault, then I was in control of it, and if I’m in control of it, then I can change it. But ultimately with sexual assault, it’s not our fault. Were there things we could have done differently? Maybe. Would it have changed the outcome? We don’t know. Maybe, maybe not.

It’s entirely possible that it didn’t matter what we were wearing or where we were, or who we were with, or how much we’d had to drink or what drugs we had done. Sometimes none of that matters. Sometimes it does matter. Sometimes somebody takes advantage of a situation that doesn’t make it okay, it just gives us some way to ensure our safety moving forward.

Stages of Trauma

HEATHER: Does it help as the listener to know that this person who’s had this traumatic event happen to them is somewhere in the process of their healing and knowing that there are different stages that they might be in. And to listen from a perspective of I wonder what stage in the healing process this person is in and how long it’s been.

I just imagine that, at some point we’re really, really angry and we want revenge. And then at another point we’re really sad and we’re grieving. And another point we might be despondent and maybe even suicidal, 30% of the time is what I’m reading. So, does that help you?

Because you’re a mental health professional, you probably have an idea of the stages of traumatic healing and knowing this person who’s sharing this story, there’s kind of a place for you to hang their story and the process of what does healing look like.

BROOKE: Sure, sure. But I certainly have seen stages in my experience, but I’ve yet to see any kind theory of stages of trauma. And many people are familiar with the stages of grief and there’s definitely a grieving that goes with trauma.

So all of those stages of grief would all be stages of trauma, as well. I think there’s a lot more to trauma than that and I’m not sure that anybody has put together like a, “here’s the stages of trauma,” but there are definitely different places to be with regards to trauma and I think as the listener, it is a good thing to be curious.

Having Genuine Curiosity

But that curiosity has to be genuine. Somebody who’s been through a traumatic experience is at a heightened level of sensitivity, and because of that heightened level of sensitivity, if you as the listener are disingenuine, they know it. So you can’t pretend to be interested if you’re not. So you do have to have a genuine curiosity about where they are.

And if the way that you conceptualize that is trying to be genuinely curious about what stage of trauma they might be in, then great. I think a lot of that is just knowing yourself and knowing what it is you need in order to be able to be present for the other person. But certainly some genuine curiosity about maybe how you can be most helpful. That’s where I tend to listen from, is, listening to them from the instance of: what piece, where are they, and how can I be the most helpful for them.

Honoring Their Story

HEATHER: There’s a part of me that wants to honor that privilege of being the listener and also feels like there must be something I can offer, but I never know what it is and I’m uncomfortable at the end of the story when I don’t know what to say.

BROOKE: Exactly what you just. ‘What a privilege that you trusted me with your story. Thank you so much for sharing it with me. I’m so sorry that happened’.

That’s all you have to say because ultimately there isn’t anything that anyone can do after it’s over, other than to be supportive, other than to share that load; that they don’t have to carry it by themselves. And the fact that they trusted you with it really is a privilege.

HEATHER: Thank you so much. Is there anything else in your experience of your lifetime that you wish people would do differently when they’re listening? If you could train the world and how to be better listeners, is there anything else that we haven’t spoken today that you wish people would be more aware?

BROOKE: I think as I have gone through life, I have learned that life truly is about relationship. And although we’re speaking specifically about how to listen, I would say that no matter what you’re doing, no matter where you are in life, that that relationship is more important or the most important. And beyond that, when you’re listening to somebody’s story, there’s very little that’s more intimate than that.

HEATHER: Thank you. So it connects you in the end if there’s a good listener, it’s possible that the intimacy and the connection that comes from sharing that weight of that story can create an emotional intimacy that is not just a privilege, but is really what we all desire, is to be known.

BROOKE: Yes. And I would say that if you have been a good listener for somebody in their story that you have already- like just that in and of itself, it begins a healing process.

HEATHER: For the person telling the story.

BROOKE: Yes. Sometimes for the listener, too. It’s amazing how listening to somebody’s story and being supportive of somebody can be healing, as well.

Qualities of a Good Listener

HEATHER: So, when we’re choosing the person that we wanna tell our story to, I’m assuming we should be looking for certain qualities of a good listener. The first thing you spoke, which I take for granted, was creating an environment in which listening is possible, where we don’t have distraction.

So if I wanted to tell my story in an environment where someone could successfully listen to me, I could create an environment of quiet and peacefulness and turn off the cell phone and have a cup of tea and pull out a pillow or a blanket. It’s a safe environment in which someone could listen to my story.

Make Sure Everyone is Ready to Share + Hear Story

BROOKE: Right. But I think, , from the storyteller perspective, you would also want to make sure that the other person was ready for that. And I would just go back to when I told my story to my husband. It took me a long time to get to a place where I was ready to do that.

But once I was ready, I still had to make sure he was ready. And so I had to tell him, ‘Hey, I’m ready. I’m in a space where I am ready to tell you this story. Is there a good time for you to be able to hear it?’ Because when somebody’s just coming home from work, although I may have set up the environment, they may have 50 other things on their mind.

Right? So important to let the other person know that I have something that, ‘I need to say and I need a certain response from you.’ But it’s also okay to just tell the other person, like, ‘Hey, I need to vent, or I need to say something, and here’s what I want from you in return. Please don’t fix it. Please just listen and acknowledge that it sucked.’

Or whatever it is that I need from you in that moment, right?

Prepare Listener with Responses We’d Like to Hear

Sometimes it can be really helpful as the storyteller to tell the other person ahead of time, ‘here’s the response that I want from you, or I don’t want any response at all.’ So often we sit down and pour our hearts out to somebody and then they’re over there like, ‘oh my goodness. Now what do I do with all of this information?’

And if they’re not prepared for, here’s the response I need from you, then they may give us something that makes things harder rather than easier. So if you are a storyteller and you’re planning on talking to somebody that is not a professional or doesn’t necessarily know how to listen well to a story, not a trusted friend, those sorts of things; even if they are a trusted friend, sometimes even trusted friends don’t really know how to respond to something. It’s super helpful as the storyteller to tell the person ahead of time what you want from them in the end.

HEATHER: Mm-hmm. That’s brilliant. So we can prepare our listeners. Not just by watching a little training video. We could say, ‘Hey, watch this training video and then let’s talk.’ But we could be specific and actually train them to be ready to hear our story and honor our story enough to prepare the space, prepare the listener with our expectations of how we want them to come and support us.

Focus On + Support the Storyteller

It’s really about supporting the storyteller. That’s the focus. I’ve noticed that some people say, oh, that happened to me too. That totally happened to me. Same, you know, same thing happened to me,’ and I suspect that that would not be helpful.

BROOKE: Generally not helpful. I mean it is helpful at some point to know that you’re not alone and that it does happen, but in that moment, that’s not what you need. In that moment, you need just that space of, ‘wow, I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I wish that hadn’t been the case.’

And then maybe in another conversation. ‘So you know that story that you told me the other day. I’ve totally been there. So let’s talk about what you need now. Like now that we’ve shared this  and now that you are no longer having to carry the weight of that by yourself, let me just tell you I’ve been there too. And here’s some of the things that I went through. I wonder if you’re feeling some of that.’

So maybe some guilt or some shame or feeling like you just need a bag of chocolate. We could go get some chocolate. Would you like to do that? So it’s okay to do all of that stuff maybe after, maybe in another conversation, but waiting until the space feels right for that great.

HEATHER: As opposed to just, ‘oh, I’m uncomfortable. Let’s go grab the chocolate right now.’ And not, not letting the story land,  and be held just by itself without having to fix it with chocolate or whatever.

BROOKE: Because ultimately we do want to fix it, right? We do want to offer some things, but we want the other person to be in a space where they wanna fix it, too.

They may not be there yet. They may be just at the very beginning stages of even acknowledging that it was real. So often one of our first responses to just about anything is denial. And so there comes this space where we’re like, ‘maybe if I pretend like it didn’t happen in my head, maybe it didn’t happen.’

And so it may be that telling our story is just acknowledging that it’s real and that it really did happen. And so we’re not ready to fix it yet. We haven’t even gotten to the space where we’ve accepted that it was real and that it happened. We’re just sort of testing the waters and testing the theory and ‘do you believe me?

‘Because if you believe me, then maybe it was real.’ So sometimes the space, and I love the way you said that, just holding the story. Sometimes that’s really just what needs to happen.

Let the Storyteller Be the Director

Taking our cues as listeners from the storyteller is really important. We need to let them be the director of what happens.

We in general are really uncomfortable with silence, and yet silence is often the best thing for us. If somebody is telling their story and they just start crying, it’s okay to just sit and wait and not say anything at all, because that creates a safe space for them.

If we attempt to stop that outpouring of emotion, then we essentially are saying that the outpouring of emotion isn’t okay. And we’re taking something away from them. We don’t ever want to take away; we only want to add to. And so we really have to take our cues from the other person. I’ve done counseling sessions where half of it is just silence because the other person was thinking or crying or whatever it is was happening. Just waiting and giving that person the space that they need to be ready for whatever it is needs to happen next.

What if Sharing Backfires or is Not Received

HEATHER: That’s great. The other thing I’ve  heard about is sometimes, the person that we’re telling has had a similar experience and has not healed it, that sometimes they become our adversary.

For example, one of my friends was sexually assaulted by a particular colleague at work and when she told her female colleague about it, the female colleague said, ‘yeah, he did that to me too, but I didn’t tell anyone because I want to keep my job so I will not back you. I’ll say you’re a liar. If you tell the institution that we work for because I want to keep my job.’

It can actually backfire to tell someone if the person that we’re telling has not healed their own wounding. Is that anything you’ve had to deal with before?

BROOKE: Sure. And I think that’s where I go back to making sure that you prepare your listener. So when you get to a place where you’re ready to tell your story, it’s important to be intentional about who you tell your story to.

Because there are people that will listen to it and be like, ‘oh yeah, that happened to me too. It’s not a big deal. Move on, get over it. Put on your big girl panties and go back to work.’ I’ve heard clients tell me all of those things; I think I’ve had some of those things said to me. And those things aren’t helpful.

And when you’re trying to tell your story, and you’re in this space of trying to figure out where you are in your own story. Are you in a space where you believe your own sense of reality? Are you struggling with that? Are you trying to decide what to do next? It’s important that you as the storyteller choose who you talk to to get the response that you’re looking for.

What to Look for in a Listener

HEATHER: And the response that I’d be looking for in a listener is someone who has the time to listen to me, is willing to hold it confidentially. I might have to ask for that, as well. And is willing to not judge in the process and is willing to have compassion and  empathy in the listening and is willing to not have to fix it, but to just listen and just hold the story and just share the heaviness of the story with me, the pain of the story with me, and to just hold it with me. So it’s not a secret anymore, so it’s something that I’ve shared.

BROOKE: Yes. Often when we tell stories, we’re looking for acknowledgement and validation, and really that’s it. We want to be acknowledged or heard and we want to be validated that that was a horrible thing. And it shouldn’t have happened.

What Not To Say

HEATHER: Is there something that I might say on accident? Just because that’s how our society maybe has trained us to say things that would disempower someone by saying, ‘oh my gosh, you’re such a victim.’

It just sounds and feels so disempowering. If someone said that to me, ‘oh, you poor thing. You’re such a victim.’ It’s like, that is not the response I’m looking for. So what is your experience with how to train people not to go there?

BROOKE: I just have to go back to, as the listener, you really have to take your cues from the storyteller. Partially because there are some people that that is exactly the response that they’re looking for.

They want to be held, they want to be nurtured, and somebody acknowledging that they’re a victim and that they’re a poor thing is exactly what they’re looking for. So really you’ve gotta take your cues from the storyteller and sometimes if you don’t know, you just ask them what they need. I think it’s important to acknowledge the story, and I think it’s important to reflect feeling, if you can, because that’s validating.

If You Get Your Response Wrong

But then beyond that, I think you have to take your cues from the storyteller. We’re all gonna mess up in our responses. We’re all gonna read the cues wrong. Even as a professional, I’ve read the cues wrong and had to say, ‘I’m so sorry I totally missed it. Help me understand what it is that I missed.’

And it’s okay to do that as long as you are fully involved in the moment with the storyteller. It’s okay if you get it wrong. But when you get it wrong, don’t get defensive about it. Just say, ‘oh my goodness, I got it wrong. I’m so sorry. Tell me what I missed. If you can help me get it right. I want to get it right. I want to be what you need in this moment. Tell me what that is.’

Regarding Physical Touch

HEATHER: Nice. Wow. And, and that reminds me too: I was thinking about touch and a lot of sexual assault involves touch and, in a sense, of loss of control. And I’m imagining that after a sexual assault, someone may prefer to have bodily boundaries in place and integrity of their clear physical boundaries, and they may not want to be touched. And how to ask for what level of touch someone might want, not just run up to them and give them a big hug without asking for something first.

BROOKE: Right. I think it’s important to ask, if you’re feeling like offering that physical touch might be helpful, I think it’s okay to offer it. But be careful about how you do it; our words really do matter. So there’s a difference between ‘can I give you a hug’ and ‘can I have a hug?’ And we don’t think about those subtle differences, but that’s a significant difference, especially to somebody that’s recently experienced a sexual assault.

Are you asking for something of them or are you offering something to them? And when I’m offering something to you, you can decline when I’m asking something of you. A lot of people have a much more difficult time with that.

HEATHER: Because it’s hard to say no when someone’s asking?

BROOKE: Yes.

Human Connection is Fundamental

HEATHER: Thank you. Anything else about being a good listener that you wish everyone in the world knew?

BROOKE: Not that I can think of.

HEATHER: You make it so simple. I’m so grateful. I thought it would take years of mental health training to get to the point where I would be a good listener for a traumatic moment. But I feel like just in this last 45 minutes that we’ve been talking, you just made it so simple.

And I’m so grateful for the simplicity of your understanding of what really matters when someone is looking to share their story and share the weight of their story with another human being, and that that’s enough. That there’s nothing more that needs to happen other than to be a supportive, available human being to someone else.

BROOKE: That human connection really is so important, so fundamental. And the connection that we get from being heard is significant.

HEATHER: I think we’re maybe making an assumption, because of how you and I were raised as sisters, that we had a pretty generous family, generous mother with love, and that we’re coming from a place of wanting to be a contribution to the person telling the story, as opposed to, what can I get out of this?

The whole purpose of the listener is to support and contribute to the story and the person telling it.

BROOKE: True. Yes.

HEATHER: That’s the intention. Yeah. Wonderful. And the hard part, in my view, is doing that in a presence that isn’t also projecting my own judgments because that could be really disturbing for someone to share such a vulnerable, intimate story and then to feel any kind of judgment happening in the listener.

The Listener Needs an Outlet + Self-Care

BROOKE: I would say that anybody that is listening to stories on a regular basis needs to have their own space to decompress. Just like counselors have their own counselors. Whether we do it with our peers or we have somebody in our life, or we have a counselor, it’s very important that when you are carrying the weight of somebody else’s trauma, that you don’t do that by yourself either. So you have to process through it.

HEATHER: That’s great to know. The listeners self care, to be able to be there for another human being, we have to have support from others. Or at least give ourselves some decompression time.

BROOKE: Yes, exactly. We can’t hold onto it. We have to let it flow through us.

HEATHER: Oh, that’s really important. Thank you.

BROOKE: And that doesn’t necessarily mean taking somebody’s story and then telling it to somebody else, but it does mean taking that story. But everything that we do has energy, people’s stories have energy, and when we take some of that energy from the other person and we hold onto it, it could get stuck for us, too.

So we have to have, exactly like you said, we have to have self care of some kind to allow that energy to continue to flow through us instead of getting stuck with us. So whatever that is. For me, I love doing puzzles, so I do a lot of puzzles. I love talking to people, so I talk to people. I have a puppy.

I mean, there’s all kinds of different things. Play is incredibly important and I think as adults we totally forget that. But play, whatever that looks like for you, whether it’s puzzles or puppies or playing with kids or, scuba diving or whatever it is; you have to play. You have to have a way to release that energy that you are accepting from other people.

HEATHER: Great. Yay. Because there’s no point in being Martyrs .

Let it flow through. Let it flow. That’s beautiful. Wow. Thank you for that reminder of self care for all of us so that we can be there and be available to listen to one another and so that we can then rejuvenate and be available to listen to another story.

Share Your Story

We’ve got lots of stories on this planet to heal still, and if we can share them and not just hold them ourselves, I think it would make a huge difference. Thank you for helping us know  the grace of what’s possible in our storytelling and in our listening and the power of listening.